The letter had taken a long time to reach me. It had been sent it to an address that was no longer mine, was, in fact, two addresses before my current one. Someone had drawn a black arrow above my name and written “Not at.” Another person—different writing, blue ink—had scrawled, “please forward,” and a yellow post office label said, “return to sender.” Everything seemed to work against the possibility that this letter would make its way from New Jersey, where it originated, bounce from one long-ago address, to a second temporary one, and arrive at the house where I’d been living for the last seven years. The name beside the snowman on the return label was more surprising than the appearance of an actual letter: It was from Ellen, a writer of some renown, who’d once been my friend. We hadn’t spoken in nearly fifteen years.
The pages were handwritten, in pencil. I unfolded them and began to read. Dear Jane.
I am writing to ask you to forgive me for my stupid behavior years ago.
I walked into the dining room and lowered myself into a chair.
I was wrong—you were right. I got my come-uppance because you dropped me—it broke my heart.
It was hard for me to read past that line. My heart hurt. I put the letter down for a moment. It was a steamy afternoon in late summer and very quiet in the house. Only the dog was with me, draped across his tuffet. I waited, as if any moment I would feel grateful to get a letter that said, “forgive me… I was wrong.” I did not feel grateful.
Ellen and I met in the late 1980s at a writers’ conference in Trenton, New Jersey, where we’d both been invited to give a reading and teach a class. She was in her fifties then, with creamy skin and hair that had gone white, and a dazzling first novel that had been featured in the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I hadn’t known this when we met, had never heard her name or read her work. What drew me to her was the sheer pleasure of listening to her talk, for she was as brilliant a conversationalist as she was a writer. We found an empty room where we could sit together between our sessions, and met up again at the end of the day. Then one or the other of us stood, and we said our awkward goodbyes. Ellen lived in a small town near the Pennsylvania border, well over an hour away from me. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “let’s get together again,” when it did not seem possible.
I had two little girls, a five-year-old, Rachel, with a seizure disorder and developmental disabilities, and Charlotte, a nine-year-old struggling valiantly in our complicated family. As I saw it, this conference was work, it was necessary, unlike making a new friend. Still, when I got home, I must have said: I met this this writer I really liked.
I wouldn’t have said: I loved her sentences. But maybe, to my husband: she’s Irish like you, only she’s first generation, wanting to relate not merely what she said, but the way she said it, her smart, wry sensibility, her warmth. Trying, failing, wishing we could have been friends.
A week or two later, I was back in Trenton as a panelist on a state arts council, and when I walked into the meeting room, there was Ellen. During our break, we found a quiet place where we could sit together, and at the end of the day we stayed on after the others had left. This time, before we parted, she asked if I wanted to join a writers’ group that was just being formed in Princeton, and this seemed lifesaving, so I negotiated with my husband and arranged for caregivers. For the next three years, until I moved to Pittsburgh, we saw each other regularly.
Six of us were in the group, though occasionally someone new would wander in, stay awhile, and depart. We were all roughly middle-aged—journalist, public defender, magazine editor, teacher—had published novels, nonfiction and stories in magazines of note. Though we were different from each other, on paper and in person, all of us loved to talk. To describe our meetings is also to say what I loved about Ellen: we ate and drank and talked, and that talk was sparkling—crude, hilarious, wildly irreverent. It took me out of my complicated domestic life, away from my volatile husband and beloved daughters, and into the world of language and stories.
We talked about books and writers, veered off into such subjects as the ways our pets responded to the men we’d brought home, and eventually got around to reading and discussing each other’s work, ostensibly the reason I drove for an hour or two to meet with the others, and later, when I began working as an editor on a middle-school magazine, took the train from New York City, and spent the night in Princeton with one of the women in the group. Later this friend claimed we did no work whatsoever on these evenings. It wasn’t true, and there are publications to prove it. But I can see how she would remember it that way, since the talk was really what made the evenings exceptional.
Ellen was inclined toward stories about friends—foolish, loveable souls, who’d been chagrinned, mistreated, hung out to dry. She rarely talked about herself and did not cultivate friendships with any of the women apart from our evenings together, as I did. She would never have told me that the stories she’d published in the 1950s in the New Yorker and elsewhere had garnered a great deal of attention and led some to call her the new Katherine Anne Porter. This was something I’d heard privately. But the stories of her beaus from that era, among them two Jerrys, one whose last name I never learned, and the other, who went on to write The Catcher in the Rye, came out in our long freewheeling conversations.
Ellen’s cranky, demanding mother, who’d emigrated from Belfast, quashed those relationships—because the Jerrys were Jewish, she said, though it seems likely Ma didn’t want her daughter going out with anyone, since for the next twenty-six years, Ellen lived with her mother, every workday making a four-hour round-trip commute from a New Jersey town to New York, where she was a copywriter and later a vice president at a major ad agency.
Her mother died; she was fired. Or maybe it was the other way around. It was before my time, as was her slow attempt to begin writing again, a journey that included enrolling in a fiction workshop, and finishing a remarkable novel that one reviewer declared was worth the twenty-five year wait, and another praised for its “deadpan, irreverent comic verve, with dialogue so saucy that one keeps wanting to say, ‘Listen to this!’”
Every couple of months we met at Ellen’s house, a craftsman-style Sears and Roebuck Kit Home, cluttered with curios and furniture and cats that climbed across the tops of sofas or on tables, and Ellen tossing one to the floor in the midst of a story, never missing a beat. Books and objects were jammed onto shelves and paintings hung on walls, alongside a range of things in transit—pictures that might someday be hung, objects that seemed to be waiting for proper placement.
There was so much cat in that house that I could feel the dander on the path that lead to her front door and began wheezing before I rang the bell. On the nights when Ellen hosted, I took a dose of allergy medicine before I left home, shunned the cats and hairy cushions, did not rub my itchy eyes, felt rotten, felt alive. Then later: Ellen, asthmatic, lying across her sofa to catch her breath, white hair, big burgundy-framed glasses, square face, thin lips that turned down, a voice that caught: yes, she knew. Yes, too many cats—stroking the fur of the officious mouser, or the snarky six-toed Calico. Of course she’d been told they contributed to her problems breathing. And then, an accounting of the history of each cat, her relationship to the cat, and the cat to the other felines, alive, recently deceased, long dead, in her telling, funny and grand. Sometimes these long monologues about her cats or dead mother or a new young friend seemed to ask for no listener, but unwound as if they were coiled inside her and simply needed to be set free. And she could be off-putting, too, and issue terse, unasked for judgments. Once, after listening to one of us read her story aloud, she proclaimed that the first thirteen pages needed to be cut.
We paused. We continued on.
The story, pages intact, was published in the New Yorker.
These days, though allergy medication is much improved, I decline invitations from friends who have cats. But when Ellen asked me to spend a night at her house just before I moved to Pittsburgh I said yes. Though I was already forty, fully grown up, I was so much more permeable in those days than now, easily charmed, easily swayed, susceptible to others’ needs, even when they stood in the way of my well-being. I said yes because I felt her loneliness, though I could not have said this at the time. I knew my visit mattered a lot—because I was leaving, because I regularly stayed overnight with another writer in our group.
I took the first dose of allergy medication before I set out on my drive to Ellen’s. I felt those cats when I knocked on the door and all through dinner. At bedtime, I brushed my teeth, popped a second dose, and slipped into bed. It was worse, then, so hard to breathe, I worried I might die. I thought about my children, and how I wanted to be the one to raise them. Then I tiptoed downstairs and out the back door, and settled into a rusted chair with my sweater draped across my chest.
When the light rose, I found myself in a garden, much like the interior of the house, with a riot of gorgeous flowers in bloom. Also: mossy pots, lawn ornaments, rusted tools, sundials, birdbaths, hoses, chairs, on the driveway Ellen’s boxy brown VW Rabbit, at curbside my own car that would take me home where I could breathe. First, though, I went back inside the house, had breakfast with Ellen and said goodbye.
I invited Ellen to spend Thanksgiving with us in Pittsburgh, and she came, two or three times. As soon as she arrived, she spread out on my long rose-colored sofa and stayed there, while I got ready for a crowd that would begin showing up a day before the holiday. Over the next days, as guests began to arrive, Ellen stayed on the sofa, receiving visitors, entertaining them, like a radio on a fabulous station, much more helpful than if she were dicing onions or setting the table.
My daughters adored her. Charlotte was drawn by her stories and their shared interest in stuff. They went to thrift shops one year and came back with bags full of chipped plates, knobby glass bowls, beaded evening bags, party dresses, drinking glasses decorated with gold leaf. Rachel, hauling her box of beads and yards of twisted plastic string, liked to park herself beside Ellen. So many people were put off by Rachel, with her abundant, disordered language, little loops of overheard niceties and fragments of others’ conversation. Not Ellen. They seemed so content sitting together stringing beads, letting their sentences run on.
On her last visit, I brought Ellen to an Irish store on the South Side of Pittsburgh that I thought she might like. It was a good time in her life: a collection of her stories had been published to great acclaim and nominated for a National Book Award. Her old beau Jerry had heard her being interviewed on NPR and got back in touch with her after many decades apart, and their romance was blooming again.
Ellen loved the crammed little store, and spent a great deal of time looking at the cases of Claddagh rings and bracelets and amulets, the angel and elf paraphernalia and pottery, the woven shawls and hand-knit sweaters, the novels and plays by Irish writers and coffee table books with photos from the Book of Kells, or of Irish cottages and windswept coastal towns. The shop also had hand-colored Celtic letters, which she admired. She made arrangements with the shop owner to send him her own Celtic letter so he could design a matching one. The details escape me, and I no longer remember why the last part of this transaction had to be carried out in person, only that I was supposed to return to the store to retrieve Ellen’s Celtic letter and mail it back to her, and that I kept putting off this trivial chore.
In many ways, my life had improved since I’d moved to Pittsburgh. The kids’ schools were close to home, and so was the university where I taught. I had good healthcare, liked my colleagues and students. When I taught a fiction workshop, I often brought in Ellen’s novel, and read aloud from the opening paragraphs, pleased to see the way her language delighted my students.
I was also overwhelmed, though I did not like to see myself this way, with an erratic, ailing husband I had to leave, an older daughter in the throes of adolescence, a younger one, dependent, oppositional, following us around, her broken language her only skill, parents who’d moved to Pittsburgh, my father in the early stages of dementia. I was still untenured, needed to write to keep my job, wanted to write to hold onto something of my own.
I should have crossed that bridge to the South Side, picked up Ellen’s Celtic letter and mailed it to her. The task would have taken two hours at most. I could have done it. She asked me once, and I must have promised to go and didn’t, and then she sent me a certified letter, in which she accused me of theft and threatened legal action. And this I remember clearly: looking at the green “certified” stub on the envelope, and thinking: really?
I’d promised to do this errand and failed. But the certified letter was so stunning the only response I could generate was that single word.
If she’d called and told me she was angry, I would have apologized, packed Rachel in the car, made the trip, apologized some more. Instead, I folded up the letter, slipped it back into the envelope, no longer having the energy for anything beyond this simplest action.
Marriage forces us to resolve petty hurts and major squabbles. You’re living with the person. You inhabit the same space, slip into a shared bed. You have no choice but to hash out these issues, because you have built something, have children, perhaps, joint bank accounts, pets, a mortgage, extended families, factors best known for pushing partners to stay in bad marriages that also prevent the dissolution of good ones.
But you can live without a friend. That Ellen and I never spoke to each other again did not affect my daily life. I made new friends. A different, less sentimental person would find it easy to say about such a rupture: Once she was my friend and then we had a falling out and that was that. But there had been no betrayal, no unspeakable act that justified cutting all ties. We had not simply grown apart, as friends bound by common interests often do. Nor had distance made the friendship hard to sustain. There was only the certified letter, and the abrupt end.
No one has ever taken her place. I could say it’s because I’ve never met anyone quite like Ellen, and that would be true. What’s also true is that in this time when my life is so much less encumbered, I no longer make space for someone like her. I can’t say exactly why. Have I become too cautious, too self-protective? Is it weariness or wisdom? Or maybe it’s that the flip side of my late-in-life ability to look out for myself is a kind of hardness, a turning away from others’ unspoken needs.
I thought about her often over the years. When our writing group met, which it did sporadically for a few years after I moved, I always asked: Has anyone seen or heard from Ellen? No one had.
And then sixteen years later, her apology, which reached me in a different house, in a changed life. Written in pencil, in a shaky script. Full of self-recrimination. Her heart broken because of her own stupidity. Her failure to understand why she done such a cruel thing, when she’d known that my life was a jammed one, that I had far too much on my plate. Why, when she had loved being at my house, when the Thanksgivings with my family were the happiest of all her memories?
I cannot tell you how I’ve missed you and Charlotte and Rachel. My own fault, of course. Of course. Of course. But I don’t think I’ve ever treated anyone as badly as I did you. Why? A mystery, since I cared so much for your friendship. A chapter in self- punishment, I suppose. Oh God, I so regret it.
It hurt to read of her anguish in this letter that had made such a long journey. I kept turning over the events from years past, weighed down by sadness. I hadn’t been angry. Just mystified, exhausted. “Comeuppance” wasn’t a fate I’d wished on anyone. It wasn’t a word I’d ever thought or used. The whole thing had been absurd.
I put Ellen’s letter on my desk, knowing I would respond, but for weeks, I kept turning away from that envelope.
One day, though, I sat down and wrote back. My handwriting is a struggle to read, so I typed it on my computer. My response was simple, so artless, compared to hers, that I almost didn’t send it. I’ve had a hard time responding to your letter, I began. It made me so sad, so full of regret.
Then I told her something of what had transpired since we’d been in touch: that I had divorced my husband, and that he had died seven years later. I gave her an update on my children, grown up now and doing well, expressed my delight to have read in her letter that she and Jerry had been living together, and that he’d been a blessing in her life. I ended by saying I’d be in New York that summer and hoped when the seasons changed we would see each other again.
My letter was dated December 31, 2011.
One morning, a week after I posted it, the phone rang. It was Jerry. We’d never met or had a conversation, and now he was calling to tell me that Ellen had died on January third. Their finding each other again after so long had been a gift, and they’d had many good years together. But now she was gone. There would be no funeral, only a small, private memorial service.
He was so warm on the phone, as if we’d long known each other, and so before he hung up I asked if Ellen had gotten my letter.
No, he said. It hadn’t arrived. But I shouldn’t fret. “She knew you loved her.”
One evening in the spring of 2017, while looking in my files for a legal document, I found Ellen’s letter. Six years had passed since her apology had arrived, twenty-one years since I’d seen her. Seeing the snowman on the return label and then her name, I felt the same heaviness in my chest. Don’t read the letter, I thought, dropping it back into the file. But I wondered: why had it remained so powerful? Ellen and I had spent some time together years ago, and I’d liked her a lot. But we’d never been close, hadn’t shares any intimacies. Why was it still so painful?
I stopped what I’d been doing and slid Ellen’s letter from the envelope. I read about her foolishness and heartache, and the memories she had of Charlotte and my mother, and Rachel, who remained for her the little girl who helped her string beads, “and what a lot of beads there were!” I read her praise of a memoir I’d written, “a fine piece of work,” and her insistence that I keep using my voice. Her anguish is raw on the page—oh god. Of course, of course. Her admission that once she was “disabled by touchiness” and now was “afflicted with shyness” touched me deeply. Reading the letter, I could see her spread out on my rose-colored sofa, could hear her voice from long ago, her long sentences, her labored breathing. Then in her house the dark woodwork, cats on the sideboard, cats clawing on the upholstery on the back of her chairs, the crowded mantel and crammed bookshelves, the mossy birdbath in her yard, her boxy brown Rabbit, and I want her to know that it wasn’t anger, ever, but fatigue.
I made myself read on, a second time, and then a third, until the sentences broke apart and the pull they had on me lessened. Then I asked myself: Had her heart really been broken? Were those Thanksgivings truly the happiest of her memories?
On the fourth reading, I could see how I’d been reeled in: her heartfelt, candid language and vivid details took me back to that long-ago time and place. Her wounds opened mine, and I recalled the night I spent in her backyard, as if staying with her no matter what could take away her aloneness. I believe that what she wrote came from her heart—there was no other reason for her to send the letter. And yet, I could finally see it as something more, as a grand performance, to which I remained in thrall, by this woman who’d once been my friend, this writer I appreciated for just such gifts.
Jane Bernstein’s books include the memoirs Bereft – A Sister’s Story, and Rachel in the World. Her new novel, The Face Tells the Secret, will be published this fall. She is a lapsed screenwriter, and an essayist, whose recent story, “Still Running” was chosen for Best American Sports Writing 2018. Also out is Gina from Siberia, a picture book she cowrote with her daughter Charlotte Glynn. Her grants and awards include two National Endowment Fellowships in Creative Writing and a Fulbright Fellowship. She is a professor of English and a member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University.” Visit her website to read some of her shorter work.
Cagibi Issue 7